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Music helps explain a paradox in research on faces and Chinese characters
Dr. Isabel Gauthier and Yetta Wong

Holistic processing (HP) was initially characterized as a unique hallmark of face perception (e.g., Young et al., 1987), until it was argued to be a more general sign of perceptual expertise (e.g., Gauthier et al., 1998). More recently, HP was obtained in novices, raising questions as to its usefulness as a test of expertise. Indeed, two articles by two different groups of researchers from the NSF-funded Temporal Dynamics learning Center published in 2009 in Psychological Science use the same task to make opposite claims: Hsiao & Cottrell (2009) found more HP in novices then experts for Chinese characters while Wong, Palmeri & Gauthier (2009) found more HP in experts than novices in a training study with novel objects.

A study in press, by TDLC investigators Yetta Wong and Isabel Gauthier looked at the perception of musical notation by experts and novices. Their research suggests HP is initially strategic, but becomes more automatic with increased individuation experience and the development of expertise. Holistic effects in novices were deemed to depend on strategy because they were sensitive to manipulations of the context (e.g., proportion of certain types of trials) that had little effect on experts. In addition, brain responses for musical notation in part of the visual system typically associated with face perception, the right fusiform face area (rFFA) correlated with HP, but in opposite directions for experts and novices, suggesting that holistic effects in the two groups are of a different nature.

This research deepens our understanding of holistic processing, a process that can be impaired in many disorders, and raises the interesting question of whether automatic effects in experts could arise from progressive modification of strategic responses.

Figure: A task used to measure holistic processing with musical notation. Participants are asked to judged whether the cued note is the same as it was in the first panel and to ignore the other notes. The extent to which they can ignore the other notes is a measure of their ability to process parts independently. Both novices and experts had difficulty doing this, but the research shows it is for different reasons.

Wong, Y.K., Gauthier, I. (in press). Holistic processing of musical notation: Dissociating failures of selective attention in experts and novices. Cognitive and Affective Behavioral Neuroscience.